Each team heads into the weekend with one side of the ball hoping their identity is found, while the other side needs some improvement.
For the North Carolina Tar Heels, last week’s offensive explosion demonstrated just how good this unit can perform. The scary part is even with nearly 700 yards of total offense, there is still room for improvement, namely on the other side of the ball.
The Carolina defense was dominant in the run game against Virginia. However, the defensive secondary was sliced up for a program-high 553 passing yards. The previous program record for opponent passing yards was set by Duke in 1989 with 479 yards allowed. Part of that is due to UNC defenses since then being susceptible enough to the run that opponents haven’t had to pass on them to that amount of volume, but it’s still a problem.
For Georgia Tech, the defense stepped up last week on the road against Clemson. The Yellow Jackets held the Tigers to 14 points and 284 yards of total offense. After a turnover on downs with 15 seconds left in the game, the GT defense came up with a safety to give the team one last Hail Mary attempt for the upset, which didn’t happen.
Despite how close the game seemed, the Yellow Jackets’ offense failed to score a touchdown versus Clemson, and finds themselves at best average in all the major statistical categories in the ACC.
Which unit steps up this week? Can Carolina put together all these pieces for a complete victory?
Georgia Tech on Defense
Linebackers Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas lead the Georgia Tech defense that has improved each week this season.
After an embarrassing loss to Northern Illinois, GT did not allow a touchdown against Kennesaw State until substitution time in the fourth quarter. Then, against #6 Clemson last week, the Yellow Jackets defense did its part in keeping them in it during a sold out game in Death Valley. Georgia Tech held Clemson to 284 total yards, the fewest for the Tigers in an ACC game in seven seasons.
GT runs a 4-2-5, and those in the defensive secondary provide the greatest strength for this unit. The Yellow Jackets have allowed an average of 124 passing yards per game, which is tops in the ACC and fifth in the nation.
As a three-year starter, senior defensive back Tariq Carpenter is a pillar in the secondary. However, he will be ineligible in the first half Saturday due to a second half targeting penalty last week. Carpenter is coming off a career game against Clemson in which he recorded 13 tackles. Derrik Allen and Jaylon King were his replacements after the ejection, and will share time in his position in the first half Saturday night.
GT did not get much pressure on Clemson’s quarterback last week with no sacks, hurries, or pass break ups. With Carpenter’s absence in the first half and last week’s performance of the offensive line, UNC quarterback Sam Howell may have a chance to establish a formidable passing attack early in the game, especially if the Yellow Jackets defense is able to step up against the run.
Georgia Tech Offense
On the other side of the ball, Georgia Tech has some serious work to do. There is a Carolina connection under center as Tech’s quarterback is freshman Jordan Yates, nephew of UNC’s career passing leader T.J. Yates. Yates stepped into the starting QB role after sophomore Jeff Sims was injured in the season opener. Sims is available for this game, and it is not yet known if Yates or Sims will get the start.
With these changes at quarterback, Georgia Tech is near the bottom of the league in passing offense. However, GT ranks sixth in the ACC with an offensive efficiency of 141.9 thanks to its ground game, which relies on Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason. Yates can also step out and run, and even has a rushing touchdown this season. Keep an eye out for running back Dontae Smith. Despite just 12 attempts on the season, the sophomore is averaging over 10 yards a carry. Smith’s two rushing touchdowns lead the Yellow Jackets.
Keeping the UNC front seven fresh will be major key with a potential trio of backs getting some action Saturday night.
GT’s primary targets through the air are Kyric McGowan and Malachi Carter, with Gibbs stepping out to grab some passes from the backfield. McGowan is tied for third in the ACC with three touchdown receptions.
In GT’s spread pro-style offense, the Carolina secondary could get another workout if Georgia Tech can find a way to make some plays. However, if there is a freshman under center, the UNC defense will have some opportunities to create some chaos. After a good start for the pass rush last week against Virginia, it went downhill as the game progressed. The pass rush could find some mojo this week against the team that is ranked dead last in the ACC with 11 sacks allowed.
Saturday night will be Carolina’s first trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia Tech is in its first year of a six year agreement to host one game annually at the NFL stadium. The series is known as Mayhem at MBS, and will feature one of the top matchups for GT in each of the next six seasons. Atlanta has not been kind to the Tar Heels. UNC holds a s 9-19-1 all-time on the road at Georgia Tech, and are 3-9 at the Yellow Jackets since 1997.
However, Carolina head coach Mack Brown has a 7-3-1 record against GT, including winning six of his last seven against the Yellow Jackets. This record includes a win in their last matchup in 2019.
The team announced they are sporting the all white uniforms for the game Saturday night. The superstitious among you felt a shiver down your spine when the uni combo was announced. Brown has never won in the all whites, and Carolina has lost six straight in that combination. According to @TarHeelUniforms, the last win in the all whites was 2016 in Miami.
The good news is UNC opened as 11.5 favorites, and the oddsmakers have added a point to Carolina’s advantage since the line opened.
In some respects, this is a must-win for the Tar Heels, as it leads into a supposedly favorable homestand in October. and a win in primetime on the road as a heavy favorite will allow them to keep pace for a Coastal Division championship.
A loss knocks UNC out of the rankings and slaps them with a “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” label once again.
Prediction: Howell gets the offense rolling early, and the defense once again makes the opponent one-dimensional.
UNC 45, GT 21